Pro wrestling is America’s most enduring art form. Which might tell you a lot about us as a country, but whatever it tells you you probably already knew. It predates movies, rock music, jazz, baseball, and even the cheeseburger. Wrestling is the only thing we do well that keeps going. And occasionally, there are moments, or whole segments that feel like they’re a part of the entire history of the business. Something that could be dropped into the 1930s or 60s, or 80s, and it wouldn’t look or feel much different.
This could have happened anywhere, in any theater or armory, or carnival ground, and it would get to the heart of professional wrestling. Don Callis didn’t have to say a word, the arena in San Diego was boiling over the minute he stepped onto the ramp to approach the ring. This is Greek theater. He might as well have carried one of those big masks with the frown on it to signal to everyone he was the villain, except he didn’t have to. There is something guttural, visceral to the outpouring of bile towards Callis that you simply don’t get in any other live experience, or even on TV. Anyone watching at home could not only hear the boos of the in-arena crowd, but feel the ones coming from everyone else watching on TV too, and vice versa.
Callis, the genius that he is, knew when to pull himself away from the mic to stare into the crowd to stoke the flames even more, and when to shout over the cacophony to deliver his promo, which only enraged the crowd more. It’s one thing to give the crowd power to stop your promo, and it’s another to stick it to them by showing that they can’t actually stop you. Each builds on top of each other.
Callis turned the AEW world against him by not only turning on Kenny Omega at the end of his cage match with Jon Moxley, but by then ending the riotous “Anarchy In The Arena” match at Sunday’s Double Or Nothing PPV with his new protege Konosuke Takeshita, whom Callis turned heel from being one of the company’s biggest babyfaces. But it takes more than what’s written out in that sentence, and it’s the way that Callis carries himself that takes this from being merely good to great heel manager work and into the stratosphere.
There are a few ways to go about being a heel. There’s the current face of the company MJF, whose insecurities are out there for all to see that he simply weaponizes against everyone else. It’s not hard to see MJF’s jealousy of everyone and everything played off as arrogance that he doesn’t need any of those things that he so clearly wants. MJF is no less an expert in this fashion.
Wow, what an asshole
And then there’s Callis, who’s simply just under a delusion of his own grandeur. He doesn’t think he’s covering anything up, he believes this shit! There is no heart-to-heart with himself in the mirror when no one’s around. His assuredness is what drives a crowd into a fury because we all know he can’t even hear us, really. The payoff in wrestling is always the heel’s world crumbling down. Eventually, MJF will come face to face with what he isn’t and doesn’t have, but we already know that he knows it’s lurking. Callis, on the other hand, will have it come crashing down around his ears, with the added surprise that it was all an illusion. He will be blindsided. This is what Jay White has been playing at in Japan for years, always getting his toes up to the line of a life-altering revelation before slithering back into the world he’s created around himself that isn’t real. Callis is doing it bigger and bolder.
To watch Callis puff out his chest, to the point you wonder if he isn’t straining his back, and his assured, air-horn delivery that evokes memories of that kid in high school you could never win an argument with simply because he refused to ever admit he was wrong, is to watch a genius in getting your blood to curdle.
Seeing Callis stand amongst that ravenous ocean of an angry crowd is a throughline to the entire history of wrestling. Managers like him have stood against that crest in WWE or WWF or WCW or in the territories or well before. Maybe it’s glossier now. It has new tweaks. It’s on TV. But in the end, it’s the same. He has touched a nerve in fans, he made us all feel something, we are in the story, desperate to see him get his. It is as simple as wanting to see a self-deluded, pompous windbag simply get punched, or driven through a table. But it is so much more as well.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate while he prays for Mercedes’s ankle to heal.